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Drinks aside, time for action on alcohol

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For years the AMA has been a consistent – and insistent – public voice demanding that the nation take its drinking problem seriously.

For doctors, this is no academic exercise. In our work, we are often at the frontline in dealing with the effects of drinking.

As an emergency physician, I encounter on a daily basis the devastation caused by people who drink well into excess. My colleagues in almost every medical discipline share these experiences. In large part, it is this awareness that motivates the AMA to put so much energy and effort into tackling the nation’s drinking problem.

In recent times, this has included highlighting the extraordinary lengths alcohol companies are going to, to market their products to the young, including through live sports broadcasts and the use of social media. We have also been lobbying governments to address the availability and affordability of alcohol.

The AMA is not a bunch of wowsers. Responding to the harms caused by alcohol is not about demonising alcohol, or penalising safe and responsible drinking. The AMA recognises that alcohol consumption is a regular part of social life for many Australians, and many who drink do so at levels that cause few adverse effects.

Unfortunately, however, a significant number of Australian drink so heavily that they put themselves, and those around them, at serious risk.

Though the overall level of drinking has remained relatively stable for a number of years, the harm it causes – not only to drinkers themselves, but also to their families, friends, innocent bystanders and the broader community – has actually been increasing.

It is these harms that are the focus of AMA policy.

For those who might dismiss the magnitude of the problem, consider this: alcohol remains second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of drug-related death and hospitalisation. One-fifth of Australians (20.1 per cent) consume alcohol at levels that put their health at risk. Among young people, the incidence of dangerous drinking is even greater.

Every day in Australia, alcohol is responsible for around 15 deaths and 430 hospitalisations. In 2010 alone, more than 157,130 people were admitted to hospital because of alcohol.

According to the recent Alcohol’s burden of disease in Australia report, the number of alcohol-attributed hospitalisations and deaths jumped 62 per cent in the decade to 2011.

It is not just drinkers who get hurt.

In all, more than a third of Australians have been affected by alcohol-related violence and nearly three-quarters of the adult population have been adversely affected by someone else’s drinking in some way, including through property damage and physical abuse.

While the link between alcohol and violence is complex, approximately 47 per cent of all perpetrators of assaults, and 43 per cent of all victims, were intoxicated prior to an attack. Alcohol is also a significant risk factor for domestic violence – 44 per cent of all homicides of intimate partners involve alcohol.

Not surprisingly, a majority of Australians want action to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

It is time governments recognised this and enacted decisive, evidenced-based policies to stem the toll.

Despite the weight of evidence and public support, the alcohol industry continues to deny the magnitude of the problems caused by its products. It persistently dismisses concerns, and seeks to emphasise the nation’s relatively stable rate of alcohol consumption.

But what the industry’s argument ignores is a fundamental change in patterns of consumption. Drinking habits are diverging. Heavy drinkers are drinking more, light drinkers are drinking less, and young people are drinking to excess much more frequently.

The top 10 per cent of drinkers in Australia are downing up to five per cent more alcohol than they were a decade ago. The result, as we know, is more people ending up in hospital with acute illness and chronic disease, more people attacked on the streets, more people suffering violence at home.

We don‘t have to accept this and, as a nation, we can no longer ignore it.

That is why the AMA is convening a National Summit on Alcohol-related Harms at Parliament House on 28 and 29 October.

The Summit, which will draw together representatives from all tiers of government, community leaders, medical and public health experts and frontline service providers, police and families of victims, will be focussed on developing real solutions – moving beyond yet another discussion of the issues to identify practical measures and plan how that will be put into place.

The scale and urgency of the alcohol problem demands nothing less.